Delving into dialect

By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

Gary Carden was in fifth grade when he learned to be ashamed of his accent.

His teacher, perhaps meaning well, said simply, “‘Gary, you need to change the way that you talk. Your dialect is associated with ignorance and backwardness,’” Carden recalled. “I believed her because I was raised to believe that teachers knew what they were talking about.”

Carden’s grandmother told him to get used to it.

“She said that the world is full of people who ‘will look down on you’ because of the way you talk. ‘Ever time you open your mouth, you will be weighed and found wanting,’” Carden quoted.

It was a lesson the world would continue to prove over and over again. In college, when Carden wanted to become an actor, he was given dialect tapes to help overcome his Appalachian affliction, much to the amusement of his speech teacher. When he decided to become a teacher, his supervisors chided him for what he calls his “nasal twang.”

So he did it their way, developing over the years a self-conscious, stilted, but “correct,” manner of speaking. Fortunately for the Jackson County-born author and storyteller, “correct” didn’t stick.

“When I was teaching at Lees-McRae, a man from the Smithsonian told me that my mountain dialect was ‘a rich cultural heritage,’” Carden said. “I have since reverted.”

Professors at Western Carolina University, Ohio State and the University of Wisconsin-Madison have teamed up to preserve the rich cultural heritage of the Appalachian dialect as part of a new, National Institutes of Health funded $1.8 million research project to learn how dialects differ from region to region and evolve from generation to generation.

The five-year study will examine the regional dialects local to each university by recording subjects reading a list of 14 words and two sets of 60 different sentences. The word selections include those like “hide” and “bag,” which sound distinctly different depending on where a subject is from.


u and i, and all those other guys

To attempt to spell out how words sound in each dialect is fruitless. To write that Ohioans say “hide” like “eye” means nothing to Appalachians. Appalachian dialect would use the same vowel in each word; it’s just that Appalachian vowel sounds are different from those heard in Ohio. The best way to describe it is that Ohio’s “hide” is sharper in tone, while Appalachian’s is softer.

Contrary to popular belief, there are 14 different vowels in the English language. The 14 aren’t the elementary school-taught a, e, i, o, and u. Rather, they’re the vowel sounds heard in the following words, using “h” words as a base — heed, hid, head, had, hod, ha(y), heard, who, hood, hode, how, hoyt, hide and haw.

Throughout the ages dialects have changed, the most famous of which is referred to as The Great Vowel Shift, a massive sound change affecting the long vowels of the English language between the 15th and 18th centuries. Now, Wisconsin is going through the Northern City Shift, in which the vowel “ah” is coming out more like “eh,” most notable when paired with a “g” or “k,” said Robert Fox, professor and chair of speech and hearing science at Ohio State, who wrote the grant application for the study.

Vowel sounds are the most indicative parts of words in determining dialect, not only to the ear, but to the eye. Words recorded in the dialect study can be played back while viewing their spectrographic makeup — essentially one can see how a word sounds. Vowel sounds have formants — sound frequencies — that are similar regardless of dialect. It is the essence of the word that changes based on the individual.

All the jargon comes down to this, Fox says: “It’s important to understand first the nature of language acquisition.”

Children model their own speech patterns after those around them — parents, caregivers, etc. However, children are unable to process full words and sentences. What they pick up on is vowels. “They tune you out, it’s too much,” said Martin Fischer, professor of communication sciences and disorders at Western Carolina University.

“Baby talk,” as its called, is not so much a dumbing down of speech to incoherent noise; it is an unconscious usage of vowel sounds to elicit a response from a child. If a mother sings, and a child attempts to mimic the song, the child repeats the vowel sounds of the song complete with tone.

“The kids are actually training us,” Fischer said.

How a parent, or whoever a child is around most, pronounces their vowel sounds in turn determines how a child’s dialect develops.


More than just the way we talk

A dialect is about more than word pronunciation.

“A dialect is an acceptable variant of English spoken in a specific region,” said Fox, a descendant of Jackson County’s Fox family from the Tilley and Pressley Creek communities. “All dialects are equally respectable and complicated languages.”

A dialect might include certain figures of speech, colloquialisms, or given word meanings. For many growing up in Appalachia, such phrases may have included “a pig in a poke” — referring to something being sight unseen, not knowing exactly what one is getting — or names like whistle pig, another term for a groundhog.

“I guess it is possible to lead a rich, full life without knowing what ‘a pig in a poke’ means or where it originated. Hog killing in my generation has very little significance in today’s world of pork industries,” Carden said. “However, when the language becomes obsolete, something of the rich texture of Appalachian culture has been lost. Hopefully, there will still be people like me who can talk about what ‘kyarn’ smells like and how mountain folk treated a cow with ‘the hollow (holler) tail.’”

Indeed, as the years pass usage of such terms seems increasingly dated and younger generations tend to opt for more universally accepted words — or in the case of today’s onslaught of electronic communications, just parts of words. Somehow the perception has devolved to the point that text messages reading “R U 4 REAL?” are considered to be less socially inept, less ignorant than a regional accent. Yet, English teachers the nation over aren’t complaining so much that Johnny says “ain’t” as they are that grammar and spelling now seem more than ever to be optional parts of written communication, term paper or no.

Phoneticians like Fox and Fischer, and native speakers like Warren Cabe, all blame the passage of colloquial language and rise of Americanese on the ever-popular mass media — the sound of a million accent-free show hosts using common denominator language being broadcast through a radio or television near you. But to what extent the native dialect is changing has not been quantified.

“That’s exactly what the study is going to be looking at,” Fischer said.

For Cabe, it’s become almost a matter of reality versus fiction.

“You don’t hear y’all and whatever on television unless it’s the Beverly Hillbillies,” he said.

Cabe, born and raised in Macon County, said that his generation didn’t used to watch a lot of TV. Now it’s possible to “get tuned into the whole outside world and forget where you came from,” he said.

Cabe had his own moment in the television spotlight, when in September 2004 the region was hard hit by back-to-back hurricanes. In Macon County, where Cabe works as the director of Emergency Management Services, tragedy struck hardest as five people were killed and 16 homes destroyed in a landslide in the Peeks Creek community.

The Cable News Network arrived on the scene and Cabe became the spokesman for the region as he detailed the destruction. Asked if he ever worried about his Appalachian accent and how it might affect the public’s perception of the area, Cabe said no.

“I worry more about grammar than I do dialect,” he said.

Plus, “I’m not the one that sounds funny, everyone else does,” he quipped.

And in the making the case for Appalachia, the dialect is reflective of a culture — not the lack thereof. Novelist Silas House hammered home this point in a column he wrote in March 2005 about a Kentucky theater class designed to teach young actors how to mask their Appalachian accent.

“I would think that this workshop would be more suitable for working adult actors — not children who are just beginning to develop their sense of self and identity,” House wrote.

Swain County school teacher Dawn Gilchrist-Young, who lives in Cullowhee, agreed.

“That dialect represents who you are, and when you lose it you kind of lose part of your identity,” Gilchrist-Young said.

Both of Gilchrist-Young’s parents are from the North Carolina mountains. Her father grew up in part of what is now the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and her mother in Hendersonville. Though Gilchrist-Young spent only the very early years of her youth in Florida, and was raised by Appalachian speakers, she herself has lost much of her accent over the years.

“I feel sad that I have so little of my Appalachian accent left, but there’s no way I could get it back without faking it,” she said.

The Appalachian identity also has been overcome by one that is more widely accepted, said Gilchrist-Young.

“Kids today identify more with being Southern than Appalachian,” Gilchrist-Young said, explaining the difference as sweet tea, stock car racing and the Civil War versus rugged individualism.


Outside perception

As a graduate student at Columbia University in New York, Gilchrist-Young experienced a memorable bout of bias from those most would tend to call educated. She went into the administrative office to sign some papers and realized that the receptionist knew who she was, despite having never met. Word had spread of Gilchrest-Young’s impending arrival, and it seemed bets had been placed on whether she’d show up in overalls with a blade of grass between her teeth. That was in 1989.

Later, a fellow student asked Gilchrest-Young if it was true that entire Appalachian families slept together in the same bed at night.

“I said, ‘Yes, all seven of us,’” Gilchrest-Young quipped.

Author House’s deep Kentucky Appalachian accent has borne him a similar burden throughout his education and now in his role as an educator.

“As an academic, I’ve had my colleagues not take me as seriously,” House said. “And I know I’ve always had to prove myself to people because of where I’m from.”

House said he grew up hearing stories from his parents’ generation about people asking if they had shoes and used outhouses. Now, the outside perception of Appalachian culture strikes deeper at an individual’s core belief system, House said.

“If someone wants to think I eat opossum, I don’t care,” he said. “If they want to think I’m a dumb racist, that really pisses me off.”

Both Gilchrest-Young and House were somewhat grim in their outlook about whether outside perceptions about Appalachia had improved — both said that they hadn’t. Even the increasing interest in Appalachian literature hasn’t broken the stereotypes as authors get pigeonholed into being “Appalachian authors,” House said.

The positive is that as an Appalachian writer there is an automatic audience, locals who are looking for authentic depictions of their way of life. And there are those who choose to read Appalachian literature because they find it exotic.

“The con is that if you write Appalachian literature you’re always considered a regional writer and not taken as seriously nationally,” said House, who’s most recent novel is called The Coal Tattoo.

In somewhat of an effort to break away from all things Appalachian, but still pay homage to his roots, House has written a screenplay “about a Kentucky basketball team” to be directed by fellow Kentuckian Ashley Judd. The film will be the actress’ directorial debut.

Regionalism doesn’t pertain as much to any other type of author or place, House said. Stephen King sets a majority of his work in New England, but is not considered a New England author, House said. Meanwhile, authors such as Lee Smith are passed over for accolades. Smith’s Fair and Tender Ladies should have been nominated for the Pulitzer, House said. Instead, reviews called it a great Appalachian novel.


The science of the study

Although the university-based dialect study won’t fix the misconceptions about the Appalachian culture, native Appalachians will have a role in defining “standard English” for the future.

For years it’s been commonly thought that the standard form of English was something akin to the Midwestern dialect — the accent of having no accent at all. However, what has become known as standard English is really no more than what is most typically heard within a generation, Fisher said. The passing generations were defined by television newsmen like Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather, men who happened to be from the Midwest.

“In reality it’s no more standard that any other dialect,” Fisher said.

Consequently, by redefining the standard — or acknowledging that their really isn’t one — the study’s findings could help improve speech and hearing tests or improve voice recognition systems that understand spoken commands.

In working with local study participants, Fisher will focus on the Cullowhee and Sylva area as well as East LaPorte, Waynesville and Franklin. Researchers hope to get 140 lifelong residents from Appalachia, Ohio and Wisconsin each. Ideally, participants will include members of the same family such as a child, her mother and grandmother.

The plan is for researchers to finish collecting data within two years, and then begin to process the information collected. So far about 25 locals have participated in the study.

“The response from the local community has just been wonderful,” Fisher said.

What the community may get out of the study in return is a newfound appreciation for its own uniqueness.

“The important thing to remember is, if you make children ashamed of the way they talk, you have automatically made them ashamed of their parents, their family and their heritage,” Carden said.

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